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« Rasmus' Wrist, Plate Approach Hurt in Toronto | Main | News: Pirates to License TruMedia's Analytics Software »
Friday
Feb102012

A.J. Burnett on the Block

With a starting rotation bursting with options and a possible need for a righty-masher to pair with Andruw Jones at the DH slot, the New York Yankees are shopping reviled right-hander A.J. Burnett. The 35-year-old has two years and $33 million remaining on the free agent deal he signed prior to the 2009 season, so the Bombers will have to swallow lots of Steinbrenner Bucks and take back little talent in return to find a suitor. Does Burnett have anything left? That depends upon whether you think he can halt his homer-prone ways outside of Yankee Stadium.

After a decent first season in New York, Burnett has suffered a huge split between his ERA (awful) and his peripheral stats (adequate). With a 5.20 ERA over the 2010-11 seasons, Burnett ranks ahead of only fellow free agent villain John Lackey (5.26) among pitchers making at least 60 starts. But judging by expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), which does a better job of predicting future ERA, Burnett's 4.17 mark is actually slightly below the 4.24 average ERA for American League starters in 2010-11.

Burnett is striking out plenty of hitters, though he's also walking more than his fair share. But the biggest problem is that hitters are taking him deep when they hit a fly ball against him:

PlayerStrikeout Pct.Walk Pct.HR/FB Pct.
Burnett 2010-11 18.9 9.8 14.1
Avg. AL Starter, 2010-11 17.2 7.6 9.8

 

That huge home run per fly ball rate -- highest among qualified AL starters over the past two years -- has led to 1.3 big flys per nine innings pitched. Bronson Arroyo and Ted Lilly are the only pitchers with 60+ starts since 2010 to get whiplash more frequently.

Burnett's fastball and sinker are the culprits. Forty-seven of the 56 homers he has surrendered over the past two years have come against the heat. And the vast majority of those shots have come on fastballs/sinkers that are thrown belt-high and over the fat part of the plate:

Location of Burnett's HR surrendered, 2010-11

Is Burnett more prone to throwing fat pitches over the plate? Possibly. Since 2010, 25.1% of Burnett's fastballs and sinkers have been tossed to the horizontal middle of the strike zone. The average for AL starters is 24.5%. Burnett has thrown 3,884 fastballs/sinkers, so that's an extra 23 meatballs for hitters compared to the league average.

Those optimistic about Burnett turning it around can point out that home run per fly ball rate fluctuates much more than strikeout and walk rate, so he's more likely to give up homers around 11% of the time a fly ball is hit next year (his career rate) than 14% of the time. And Burnett's fly balls aren't traveling farther than they used to: batters hit fly balls an average of 281 feet against Burnett in 2010-11, compared to 282 feet during his more successful 2008-2009 seasons.

In a less hostile pitching environment -- say, Pittsburgh's PNC Park -- Burnett could re-establish himself as a league-average starter and produce something in the range of three Wins Above Replacement over the next two years. That sort of pitching is typically worth around $15 million on the free agent market, but those wins are less valuable to a rebuilding club and Burnett has barely been above replacement-level if you judge by ERA. Unless a team is really banking on a Burnett rebound, the Yankees might have to eat 20+ million to make a trade happen.

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